Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The legacy of Malcolm X -- one Christian's perspective

If you didn't already know, today is the anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, best known as the foremost spokesman for "black nationalism" during the 1950s and '60s and who built the Nation of Islam into a major cultural force in the African-American community of that day. Needless to say, in many households he is still revered.

The truth be told, I truly wonder just what he accomplished throughout his just under 40 years of life.

Born in Malcolm Little in Omaha, Neb. in 1925 to a pastor who was lynched by the Ku Klux Klan, he eventually found himself in prison, I'm not sure why. But while there he fell under the spell of Nation of Islam teachings and, upon his release, became a major force not only in NOI but also in the black community. That is, outside the South.

That last item is important, as Malcolm, who used the letter X to replace his "slave name," once admitted, "I don't know nothing about the South."

I'm sure he felt that, with his extremely angry rhetoric, he was speaking out for the powerless in the 'hood, but the NOI's references to whites as "devils" put a lot of people off. (They certainly would have put me off had I heard them back then.) And those kind of pronouncements kept Martin Luther King Jr. from meeting with him during the Southern civil-rights movement; while King was firmly committed to nonviolence, Malcolm never was and King felt -- correctly, in my view -- that Malcolm would cause unnecessary bloodshed.

Now, Malcolm, as a Muslim, would have maintained that strict Islamic moral code -- no alcohol or tobacco, and he certainly refrained from eating pork -- and to this day NOI members are quite disciplined, but sometimes these things have nothing to do with truth. I can't even think of any legislation he had passed, what kind of positive effects he had as far as economic empowerment or anything else. Moreover, according to Dinesh D'Souza's book "The End of Racism," he even met with Klan leaders in 1961.

And here's another irony: He died in part because he repudiated racism.

In 1964 he took the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca and was shocked to see -- white Muslims. He would eventually leave the NOI in part because he said that it wasn't teaching true Islam (and in fact, orthodox Muslims consider the NOI a "cult"). For the rest of his life Malcolm -- who took the name al-Hajj Malik al-Shabazz -- dedicated himself to Islam, taking much of the African-American community with him. (The NOI eventually collapsed, being revitalized only a couple of decades ago under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan but having only a fraction of the membership that it had at its peak.)

I think the lesson for us Christians is that we need to be aware and militant about social injustice -- because God certainly tells us to be so. Otherwise, we risk having folks outside the faith remind us of our failures. And let me leave no doubt: In the final analysis, Malcolm does represent a failure of the church.